The Grammys are always full of surprises, but the biggest surprise of the 2020 Grammys for me was when Billie Eilish managed to sweep almost all of the major awards, including Song of The Year, Album of The Year and Record of the Year. I’m a fan of Billie Eilish. It’s refreshing to see an artist around my age be so successful. What I didn’t like about Billie Eilish’s win at the Grammys was that she managed to thank everyone and everything for her success in her acceptance speech but black culture.
From her style to her accent, Billie has (hopefully) inadvertently taken much of her persona from black people. Billie’s style, which is reminiscent of black style icons such as Aaliyah and Dapper Dan, features hoop earrings, chains, Jordans, oversized baggy designer clothes and gaudy acrylic nails. Although Billie has stated in a video for Calvin Klein that she wears baggy clothes to prevent fans from expressing their opinions on her body, I can’t help but see her style and be reminded of the type of styles that were popularized and pioneered by black people in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
In addition to her clothing, one of the things that has helped Billie establish herself is her personality. Billie’s mannerisms and slang can be seen as derived from black culture. Billie not only uses African American Vernacular English (AAVE), but she also has a very clear blaccent, something that her brother, who was raised in the same household, does not have.
I first started noticing these things about a year ago when I discovered Billie’s music. I didn’t want to villainize Billie because after all, she is only 18 and has a lot of time to grow as an artist and establish her own style. Plus, It would be irresponsible to not mention that Billie has credited her style to black artists such as Rihanna. It wasn’t until recently when Billie made very controversial comments about the state of Hip Hop in a new interview with Vogue.
“Just because the story isn’t real doesn’t mean it can’t be important. There’s a difference between lying in a song and writing a story. There are tons of songs where people are just lying,” she said. “There’s a lot of that in rap right now, from people that I know who rap. It’s like, ‘I got my AK-47, and I’m f*ckin’ . . .’ and I’m like, what? You don’t have a gun. ‘And all my b*tches … .’ I’m like, which bitches? That’s posturing, and that’s not what I’m doing.”
I find it very ironic that Billie, an artist clearly inspired by rap culture, can so easily criticize rap music for “lying” when she herself brags about seducing other people’s dads and killing her friends. When she, a white woman, does it it’s called “writing a story,” yet when rap, a predominantly black genre, does it, it’s called “lying.”
Billie isn’t the first artist to take aspects from black culture only to disrespect it in the same breath. It’s very clear that black culture sells. Rap is the No. 1 genre right now. AAVE is littered throughout social media. Cornrows and other protective styles are fashionable in Hollywood. Black style is seen all over the runway. Because the industry sees that black culture is so marketable, they often put it in a package that is easily digestible for white audiences; insert here a random white artist, ie. Post Malone or 2013 Miley Cyrus. Both are artists that take part of black culture (rapping, twerking, AAVE), but put it in a little bit less “ghetto” package that is easier for white people to digest.
Here is why this formula is problematic. For one, as a black person, it sucks to see someone like Post Malone be so successful when I know many less-famous black artists who have almost the same aesthetic yet aren’t popping off, possibly because of the color of their skin. Would white people still sell out Post Malone concerts if it was a black man making the same music?
Two, it also sucks as a black person to see this aesthetic sell when a white person does it, yet in real life, these are the behaviors black people are persecuted for. When Billie Eilish wears baggy clothes, fashion publications everywhere hail her as a fashion icon. Yet, when black people wear them, they are targeted and considered “ghetto.” When Kim Kardashian wears braids, it’s cool, but when black people wear them, they are fired from their jobs or expelled from school. When Miley Cyrus uses AAVE, it’s trendy and fun, but when I use it, it’s unprofessional.
Three, white artists treat black culture simply as an aesthetic, not a generational tradition. For example, Miley Cyrus had a so-called, “black phase” in which she used AAVE and came out with rap songs. However, years later in an interview with Billboard, she wanted to distance herself from the genre because according to her, “It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’ — I am so not that.” Miley took from our culture to gain relevance, yet so easily threw it in the trash like it was disposable to her. Black people don’t get the same privilege of being able to drop the culture that has been ingrained in them since childhood. Some black people don’t know how to code-switch or don’t have the resources to straighten their hair anytime they want, yet white people get to do the same?
And it’s not just celebrities. Your average rich, suburban white kid uses AAVE, listens to rap music and says the n-word, but he gets defensive during conversations about race and locks his car door when black people walk by. I love the phrase, “They want our rhythm, but they don’t want our blues.” I love this phrase because it exemplifies generations of white people enjoying some parts of black culture but ignoring the parts they don’t like. Where are these Post Malone fans during Black Lives Matter protests? Where are the Billie Eilish fans when black people are defending themselves from racism on social media? It’s up to those in power (*cough cough, white people*) to help dismantle the racism black people face just for some of the same behaviors that white people indulge in. If you claim to be so appreciative of our culture, why aren’t you supporting us when it really counts?
Almost all of our modern pop culture slang is influenced by black people. All you have to do is peruse on TikTok for 30 seconds to see that many non-black people easily cherry-pick parts of black culture to be funny while simultaneously using it in a wrong and offensive way. Take for example, a new trend in which teens are wiping their nose and then sticking their thumbs down, emulating a gang sign popularized by rappers such as Young Thug. The trend is offensive as teens, many who are not black, are making light of gang signs and slang such as “slatt” and “slime” which many black people are getting killed overdue to the gang implications that come with the trend. It’s very disrespectful that non-black people are using these slang words and mannerisms in the wrong context without doing any research.
Speaking of slang, I could write an entire article on all of the words used by non-black people that are actually created by black people. Lame, bae, f*ckboy, twerk, yolo, turn up, thick, cool, my bad, hater, 24/7, back in the day, high-five, and rip off are all words that are part of AAVE. The problem with cultural appropriation doesn’t just lie in using these words, it’s about using these words in a way that is disrespectful to black people. If you’re still confused about the problems of cultural appropriation, I’m concluding this article by answering a few frequently asked questions about the subject.
Are you saying that I can’t wear [insert something here] or say [blank] without being racist?
I’m not. I’m saying that if you want to wear these styles, you should also recognize that black people are often persecuted for wearing these same styles. Be able to recognize this and talk about it, as well as be able to support black people in their times of need. Also, be able to give credit to the black people that have inspired your look.
“Let people wear what they want…It’s just hair, get over it.”
That’s very easy to say when you’re not a part of a culture in which you are punished for what you wear/say/do. Put yourself in a black person’s shoes, and maybe you could see why we can’t just “get over it.”
Black people wear straight blonde hair. Isn’t that cultural appropriation?
No. Black people are capable of growing naturally straight or blonde hair. Hair color and texture is a matter of genetics, not culture. Not only that, but black people were often forced to straighten their hair in order to assimilate into white society. So no, it’s not cultural appropriation.
How do I appreciate black culture without appropriation?
There are good examples of cultural appreciation. Brazilian sportswear label Osklen paid an indigenous tribe for their contributions to their spring 2016 collection. The tribe then was able to use the money to support their community. Obviously that example is on a larger scale compared to the everyday person. If you want to use parts of black culture, always give credit where credit is due and ask yourself, “Am I using this style to be cool, or have street cred?” “Am I using this culture while simultaneously not doing my research/being disrespectful?” “Am I taking space from the people who created this look?” If you answered yes to one or more of those questions, it’s probably better to just not use that part of the culture.